A burning oil spill in the Niger Delta. Photo via City of Refuge Africa
Living some 6,000 miles away from the Gulf of Mexico, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that the oil spill often seems like an abstraction to me. A big, big abstraction, but still. Pictures of oil-covered pelicans and other heart-tugging images occasionally appear in the Turkish press, but generally, people here — like people anywhere — are more concerned about domestic issues, of which we have plenty. And I know that when I was living in the United States, the Turkish mining disasters that so compel me now would have seemed equally remote.
That’s why an article on “The World’s Ongoing Ecological Disasters” — some of which make the BP spill pale in comparison — offered an especially striking reminder that there are ecosystems and people suffering outside the eye of the nightly news.
A Five-Decade Oil Spill in Nigeria
In his piece this week for Foreign Policy, author Joshua E. Keating highlights five global environmental catastrophes that appear to be even harder to solve that the BP spill. “The Deepwater Horizon incident may have been the worst oil spill in U.S. history, but it pales in comparison to the ongoing catastrophe that has afflicted Nigeria’s Niger River Delta over the last five decades,” he writes, noting that the African country suffers the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every year. “Oil companies operating in the region blame thieves and sabotage for the majority of the spills, though local activists say aging equipment and lax safety are the cause of many of them,” Keating writes, adding that the problem will likely worsen as oil companies seek black gold in places where it’s harder to extract.
Coal Fires in China, Deforestation in Haiti
In Inner Mongolia, more than 60 underground coal fires have been burning since the 1960s, potentially causing up to 3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. Coal is just as bad for people in China as it is for the environment; as many as 13 coal miners are killed each day while working under extremely dangerous conditions.
The devastating earthquake in Haiti only compounded the problems of this Caribbean island, where tree-cutting carried out since 1492 has left the ground almost completely treeless. According to Foreign Policy, “98 percent of its forests are gone — one of the worst cases of deforestation in human history,” largely due to cutting trees for charcoal fuel. The ensuing erosion has devastated the agriculture sector in Haiti and made the island more prone to deadly landslides in the event of a natural disaster.
A Garbage Dump in the Pacific Ocean, A Dying Sea in Central Asia
The massive “soup of plastic and debris one-and-a-half times the size of the United States” that is floating in the Pacific Ocean is only the most widely publicized example of a major global problem, Keating writes: “According to the U.N. Environment Program the world’s oceans contain 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile. These plastics are responsible for the deaths more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year.”
Damming and canalization in Central Asia by the Soviet Union, which sought to build a cotton industry in Uzbekistan’s desert, have shrank the Aral Sea dramatically and made it so salty that all the fish species that once lived in it are extinct. Dilapidated boats moored in a sea of sand are a famously poignant image of environmental destruction, but the shrinking of the sea has less visible impacts as well: “When the wind sweeps across the now-dry sea bed, it spreads up to 75 million tons of toxic dust and salt across Central Asia every year.”
Efforts to return water to the area, however, have allowed the Northern Aral to grow by 20 percent and fish and birds are starting to return. It’s a small glimmer of hope in a world of too-little-known problems.
More about environmental disasters:
8 Worst Man-made Environmental Disasters of All Time
Disaster In The Gulf: The Oil Spill Environmental Impact: Video